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That all-important first floor

Kaye Ferry

We dodged a major bullet at the town of Vail PEC meeting on Aug. 23. But don’t relax just yet. It may be back. They may appeal. Let’s just hope that when the trigger gets pulled the next time, we’re ready. And not just for now, we need to fix it forever.Here’s the story. An application was made to convert an empty art gallery on Meadow Drive into a real estate office. You may or may not know that in the core of Vail Village and Lionshead, the use of first floor space is restricted. Any business that does not generate sales tax cannot occupy those spaces.There’s a good reason. Sales tax revenue is the fuel that runs the engine of this town. Without sales tax revenues, services aren’t provided, streets don’t get repaired, salaries don’t get paid. You get the picture. It’s easy to see the struggle the town has been up against these past few years as sales tax has declined.While many things contribute to a healthy resort economy, maintaining and generating sales tax is a top priority. So what’s the problem? Why was this even up for discussion on Meadow Drive?Remember I referred to zoning in the two commercial cores? Well back in the old days, places like Crossroads and Meadow Drive were considered the suburbs. As such, there didn’t seem to be a need to protect them in the same ways as, for example, Bridge Street, which was the center of the action – at that time.The result? The same first floor rules don’t apply to the “outlying” districts. Those areas function under a different set of regulations that allow offices, etc., to occupy first floor space through a conditional use application. That means the PEC gets to decide what is the best use of those spaces given current conditions.When evaluating any application, the PEC has certain criteria they are required to apply. A couple jumped off the page at me. “Relationship and impacts of use on development objectives of the TOV.” Slam dunk. The town of Vail clearly has as two of its objectives to create a vibrant retail community and collect sales tax. Next.”Effect on character of the area in which the proposed use is to be located.” Another easy one. Take a walk along that street and it’s obvious that the retail and restaurant experience is what dominates. It’s an environment that the town wants to encourage, as was evident when the Sonnenalp moved through the process. Incorporating retail into its redevelopment was a message that was sent over and over.So on Monday, the application was denied. Thank God. Because this thing we have called “horizontal zoning” is the envy of every community that doesn’t have it. I’ve had calls from as far as California and Idaho. The town attorney’s had calls. Resorts want to know how we could ever have had enough foresight to protect ourselves from a problem that is plaguing them.And there’s no need to leave the state. Crested Butte envies us. Breckenridge is struggling with this dilemma. Aspen would kill to be able to step back in time and emulate us. In fact the “Aspen Retail Analysis” that they contracted for last year makes it very clear: “Aspen is losing it soul”; “non-retail uses on the ground floor contribute to Aspen’s downtown lethargy”; “the downtown has lost its vibrancy”; “significant loss of retail”; and very specifically, section II, page 5, “too many real estate offices.” These are direct quotes from that study. But you don’t have to read about it. Have you been over there lately? The old Aspen Drug Store that had been there since the 1800s gave way to – you guessed it – a real estate office. That is what we have to look forward to if we don’t hold the line. It’d be very easy to fill all of our first floor spaces with real estate offices. They’d love to be there, and they can afford the rent. But as the Aspen study also says, “Limitations on non-retail uses will force property owners to pursue retail users. Limitations effectively ‘create’ more retail-restaurant and contribute to lower lease costs.”I’ve had talks with the Aspen Chamber and they acknowledge their problem. When I was over there last month, I visited with an old friend who is on their downtown economic council. He asked how we had avoided this nightmare. I told him that someone long before me had envisioned the future needs of the community and protected us.It’s time now, to not only stick to that brilliant vision, but to expand it. Meadow Drive is no longer “way out there.” It’s a part of our town that is vibrant and active. And it’s about to blossom as a major hub. With the Sonnenalp redevelopment and the Crossroads project, that area is about to explode as a significant commercial center. While it will take a couple of years, now is not the time to change our strategy. First floor space should be reserved for sales tax-generating businesses. We should change all of our zoning to that effect. It’s as simple as that. It should be the key to our future development just as it has been the cornerstone of our past success.Do your part: call them and write them. To contact the Town Council, call 479-1860, ext. 8, or e-mail towncouncil@vailgov.com. To contact Vail Resorts, call 476-5601 or e-mail vailinfo@vailresorts.com. For past columns, vaildaily.com-columnists or search:ferry. Kaye Ferry is a longtime observer of Vail government. She writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail Colorado


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